Obama Should Remember the American Tradition of Thinking Big -- And So Should All Americans

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An old movie takes us back to a time when Americans dreamed heroic dreams -- and built them, for the betterment of themselves, their country, and all mankind.

President Obama, in particular, should see the 1935 movie, "The Tunnel,"a film that portrays such heroism--because he is now in a losing struggling to defend his big-government programs, which are too costly even for many Congressional Democrats, to say nothing of Republicans.

No doubt President Obama believes that he is simply replicating Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal of 70 years ago--which most Americans, then and now, have judged to be a success. But while Obama might think of himself as another FDR, the differences between what the 32nd President did, and what the 44th President is doing, are far greater than the similarities.

One of the great strengths of the New Deal was that it was tangible. The Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps, Rural Electrification Administration, and Tennessee Valley Authority were all controversial -- critics labeled them costly boondoggles -- but they were specific. And tangible. People could see them, and see their benefits. And so when President Roosevelt dedicated Boulder Dam(later renamed Hoover Dam) on the Arizona-Nevada border, that was real proof that the government was doing things with obvious economic and social value. Back then, people wanted the electricity from the dam; soon thereafter, they wanted the recreation potential of Lake Mead. Indeed, Hoover Dam itself continues a tourist attraction, 73 years after it was finished. That's change Americans can alwaysbelieve in.

And that's the point: Building useful things is always popular -- a political winner. Construction automatically creates jobs, and if the project proves economically viable, it pays for itself. In addition, sometimes grand projects yield up even grander benefits, too, such as a stronger country and a safer world. That was the argument of the movie "The Tunnel," back in 1935, starring the now-forgotten actors Richard Dix and Madge Evans, featuring cameos by Walter Huston and George Arliss. Set in the not-too-distant future, "The Tunnel" showcases Dix as the visionary inventor-engineer Richard "Mack" McAllan, who has developed "Allanite Steel" and a "radium drill" that will enable him to dig a tunnel beneath the Atlantic Ocean, connecting America to Europe. McAllan's purpose in pursuing this undersea project, as the film makes clear, is one part technological exuberance, one part the promotion of world peace through better communication. And oh yes, McAllan is happy enough to make a profit for himself and his investors. In this YouTubeexcerpt from the film, Mrs. McAllan encourages her husband--who has already built tunnels under the English Channel and in the Caribbean--to press ahead with the mammoth project, despite the the skeptics and cynics.

Mrs. McAllan: The world needs the tunnel.

Mr. McAllan: You make it sound like something heroic.

Mrs. McAllan: Well, isn't it? You've always been like that--doing great things, making the world better and safer, and believing all the time that you're doing them just to please yourself.

There's an irony here: McAllan is indeed trying to make the world better and safer. And that's the essence of the film--that there is something inherently heroic about building things, and such construction can serve great and noble purposes.

If that doesn't sound like a popular theme in today's movie culture, that's because it isn't. Today's media culture seems to dwell on everything else butheroics of infrastructure and industry. And that's our loss as a nation.

"The Tunnel" takes many dramatic twists and turns, including multiple deaths during the course of construction, but McAllan's bold project is successful. And as a result, a better world beckons, more prosperous and more peaceful. Back in those days--indeed, all through American history, up until the 1960s and 70s--the American imagination was shaped by pioneers, wildcatters, and builders. All that hard work made America great: We were both economically prosperous and militarily strong.

So what has happened in the last 40 or so years? Where did the old "can do" spirit go? Why don't we have the new power plants, factories, and infrastructure projects, fostering new industries and new economic development? Why can't we manufacture things here at home the way that we once did? And, by the way, where did all those jobs go?

To cite all the construction-killing culprits would be a whole 'nother article, but a starter list of suspects would include Luddite environmentalists, trial lawyers, and the Not In My Back Yard-ers.

We've all sensed the problem growing worse over the decades. Now, as we all know, the situation is critical. And it's happening on Obama's watch.

The American economy will not recover unless men and women are free to build, and build big. The government should help, not hinder, such construction.

So who can overcome the naysayers, the NIMBYs, the nihilists, and the neo-Hobbits? Who can complete projects of enduring value for America? If Obama can't find such forward-looking, forward-moving creators to serve in his Administration, his would-be Second New Deal will dissolve into debt, deficits, frustration, and inflation.